To borrow some words from James (Ja 1:2-4), Paul counted it all joy to live like Christ, to suffer like Christ, and even to die like Christ. Anything it took to be like Christ and to rise from death like Christ – that’s what Paul had signed up for. His singular focus was to live eternally in heaven with his savior.
Paul’s motto: I’ll do whatever it takes.
This is worth stopping to think about. Would you do whatever it takes to be with God in heaven? Jesus talked about the same thing in parable. A couple examples from Matthew 13:
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven was like a treasure hid in a field. When a man found out it was hidden there, it was of such great worth that he sold all he had in order to be able to purchase the field, and therefore acquire the treasure. The kingdom of heaven was worth giving up everything else.
He also compared the kingdom of heaven to the best pearl in all the world. Once a merchant saw it, he rejected all other pearls because they fell short. Again, he sold all he had to acquire this pearl because it had unspeakable worth.
Do you see heaven as having that much value? Do I? Man, I’d like to think so, but there are so many good things in life. Getting that promotion at work or finding that dream job is a fantastic thing. It’s a good thing. God is not a killjoy. Finding fulfilling work is a blessing. But do I seek that more than I seek after heaven? When I do, I’ve found my idol.
Do you look forward to the day that you’re out of debt? That’s a fantastic thing. In fact, God says it is good to keep control of your finances. But do you place a higher value on financial freedom than you do your eternal freedom? If so, that’s your idol.
What are other things that you are unwilling to let go of? Certainly, there are probably sins you continually find yourself committing – but I’ll bet there are good things that occupy your focus too. Does this mean we can’t enjoy life? Of course not. But if we’re honest, a whole lot of what we call enjoyment is actually sanctified idolizing and coveting.
Paul says all of this will fade when we have the singular focus of spending eternity with Jesus. And he’s willing to do anything to achieve that. And this brings us to today’s text.
Philippians 3:12 – 4:1
“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
“Brothers (and sisters), join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers (and sisters), whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.”
Paul is calling us to endure. He bookends this passage with language of perseverance, pressing on, straining for the goal, being immovable in our resolve. He calls us to live like Christ, and never give up. Stand firm. Will you? Do you really count everything else as rubbish in comparison to this singular goal? Please don’t confuse this with earning your salvation! Because Paul, Jesus, and all of scripture agrees that you can’t. What I am saying – what Paul is saying – is that we should be focused on attaining resurrection from the dead – the afterlife – the eternal reward.
Was Paul Saved?: Already, but Not Yet.
So Paul’s motivation is eternal life. Interestingly, in v12, he says he doesn’t consider himself to have obtained it yet. Certainly, by placing saving faith in Christ he had, hadn’t he? This is an example of what theologians refer to as “already/not yet”. Paul was saved when he wrote this, but Jesus was also in the process of saving him, and that salvation will come to fruition at judgment. Paul was redeemed, but Christ was redeeming him. Sanctified, and yet through the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, undergoing the process of sanctification. Because of this “already/not yet”, Paul could talk of having full confidence in his salvation, and he could also talk about running the race in order to win as if salvation was something to earn. Surely, Christ has done the work, but that should not make us complacent – it should make us work all the more!
So, That Means We Earn Our Salvation?
Understanding Paul’s motivation here is also the solution to understanding the seeming disagreement between James and Paul about works. Paul said your works can’t save you. James said your works save you. On the surface, that seems like a problem. Here’s the solution: They’re not talking about the same work. Paul is talking about works of the law. It is true that the work of following rules cannot save us (not to mention that we would fail miserably at this anyway). James on the other hand is talking about the work that we do in response to being saved. If we truly are saved from the penalty of our sins, we ought to do things differently. If we didn’t, would anyone watching think that we actually believed what we said? That’s why James said, “I’ll show you my faith by my works”. In other words, that’s how you’ll know that I’m a Christian and my faith is sincere.
So, who’s right – James or Paul? Yes. They both are. No matter how much you do or how good you think you are, that white robe of righteousness you imagine yourself to be earning is actually seen by God as “filthy rags” or “polluted and permanently stained garments”. (This is a reference to defiled menstrual cloths.) But that doesn’t mean that doing good is bad. It means that what you do won’t save you. You might as well not even try. On the other hand, the pleasing deeds performed by one who has been redeemed by Christ are seen in a much different light. Hebrews 11 enumerates the saints who have gone before, whose deeds were seen as pleasing to God, because of the fact that they had been justified by faith. And further, God saw these deeds as evidence that their faith was legitimate.
- By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous
- By faith Noah, (…) in reverent fear [of God] constructed an ark for the saving of his household (…) and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
- By faith Abraham left his home when God told him to, followed where God led, and offered to God his miracle son, and in doing so please God with his obedience.
- By faith, Moses stood up to Pharaoh and left a life of luxury to lead a stubborn and ungrateful people into the desert, all because he believed God. And God was pleased with this obedience.
On and on we could go with the examples. We don’t obey to earn our salvation, but those who are saved respond by obeying.
The writer of Hebrews notes that “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Do we see ourselves as foreigners here? As exiles on the earth? These mighty people of faith did, and it drove them to please God rather than man. They died without receiving the things they had promised. We’re in something of a wilderness too. Our promised land is heaven. And Paul says we should strive toward that promised land with all our strength.
What Jesus Did
So Paul knows that he could not save himself, but he has been saved by Christ. More specifically, he was saved by a process called imputation. Actually, we should talk about double imputation. Imputation is the process of a thing being counted to someone else’s account. For instance, when Adam fell, we all fell. His sin was imputed to all of us. As in, we were all counted as owing it even though Adam is the one who did it. When Christ came though, he reversed that. The reason we call what Christ did “double imputation” is that two things happened. First, he took our guilt that he did not deserve, and having it counted as his own received the punishment due. Our guilt was imputed to Christ. Second, he gave to us his righteousness that we did not earn. He lived the perfect life that we could not live, and that credit was imputed to us. He lived the life we could not live. He died the death we should have died. That’s double imputation, and it’s an unspeakable gift.
So, are we righteous? No. But God sees us as righteous because he sees Christ when he looks at those who are his. We are not perfect, though we seek to “be perfect as he is perfect”. Perfection means to have no lack. It means there is no deficiency. So seeking perfection is a lifelong pursuit. Will I ever reach it? No – but that is the target that we aim for.
Side note: We ought to understand the purpose of both law and gospel. We cannot follow the law or attain perfection. But in attempting to do so, we see our weakness and we have a greater appreciation for who God is. The law says “do”, the gospel says “done”. And yet, until we try to “do” and fail, we do not see how sunk we are. We are truly lost. The good news of the gospel relies on this. Without bad news, there is no good news. The gospel says you are an incredibly bad person, but you have an incredibly good savior.
Notice the end of this verse (v12). Paul makes it clear he isn’t seeking to save himself. This is not the law at work here. He says “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own”. In other words, this is all his response to Christ. There is a huge difference between duty and response.
In the Count of Monte Cristo, there is a scene where Edmond Dantes finds himself washed up on a beach. Soon thereafter, he finds he is not alone. The island is occupied by a band of pirates. They find Dantes and decide they will use him to determine the fate of one of their own. The smuggler Jacopo was a traitor. He had betrayed his own crew and was sentenced to death. The leader of the smugglers saw Dantes as a convenient way to wash his hands of the matter, and ordered the knife fight. To add to the difficulty, Jacopo was the best knife fighter in the world. The hitch is that this was to be a fight to the death. Surprising everyone, Dantes won. All that was left was for him to kill his opponent. Still poised over Jacopo, knife in hand, Dantes appeals to the leader to spare Jacopo’s life. When he agrees, Jacopo tells Dantes, “I am your man forever”.
Did Jacopo have anything to earn? His life had already been spared, so this was not a promise to earn his life. Rather, seeing the great gift he had been given, his response was to devote his life to the one who saved him because of his sincere gratitude.
This is a dim comparison to what Paul is talking about here. He’s not saying such actions save him. Rather, he’s saying that this is the natural response of one who realizes the gravity of what Christ has done. Have you ever stopped to consider this?
Paul knows that he wants eternal life. He knows that Christ attained this for him. And yet, he does not consider it to be his own, lest he be complacent. He presses on. He ignores past failures and past victories. He thinks only of the goal ahead: eternity with Christ.
Like Jacopo, this response is always at the front of his mind. There is not a day he wakes up and forgets that he should be dead, but for his savior. And so he presses on out of love and thankfulness. Paul says if we are mature, that will be our response as well (v15).
Beware the Dogs
Before Paul closes this chapter about the importance of putting our faith entirely in Christ, he offers an admonition – an instruction that also carries a warning . Paul starts by getting personal. It seems like the Philippians were especially interested in copying other people. (Are we really so different today?) Remember back at the beginning of this chapter he gave his pedigree? Noble birth, highly trained, well respected, hard worker, etc. By all measures, he was the high-water mark. So now he says, “You want a target to aim for? You need a mentor? Pick me. Just remember what I’ve said! None of these criteria got me anywhere with God. The only thing that matters is my devotion to God – my commitment to following after Christ with all I have – no matter what that means for me. You need to follow a human? Then copy me as I copy Christ.”
And then there’s the warning. You can’t follow just anyone who claims to follow Christ. Paul praised the Bereans for not just listening to his message, but for examining the scripture to see if what he said was accurate. Paul said not to blindly trust other prominent leaders – Paul’s peers essentially – unless they live like Paul in abandon to God. He refers to there being many people – people he has warned them about often – as being enemies of the cross. Don’t miss the weight of what he is saying here! In fact, Paul says he weeps for them because he knows their end is destruction. He is saying there are people who are quite well known, that others might compare to him because they claim to preach Christianity – who are going to hell! Let that sink in. Jesus said “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to eternal life – and those that find it are few”.
Those who say the way is easy are wrong. If you are listening to people who say you can have your best life now, please stop. If they say salvation requires adherence to Hebrew rituals, paying money to a ministry, or performing acts of contrition, don’t follow them. Ignore them. If they claim to be modern apostles or prophets on par with those who brought us Scripture, with insider knowledge from God about how God will grant your every wish for comfort, success, money, fame, and ease, don’t follow them. Run. There are no super-Christians to follow because of how impressive they claim to be personally. Paul could not have been more clear. He had nailed the Law, he performed miracles, he displayed spiritual gifts, he had visions of heaven – and all that mattered to him was that he was like Christ. That was the only thing to copy.
Listen again to what Paul has to say:
“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
If this sounds harsh… good. Christianity is not a life of ease. You don’t tack God onto the lifestyle you’ve chosen - that’s not transformation. The way is narrow. The gospel is an offense. If you are a Christian, you will live differently. If you are a Christian, you will tell others about Christ. If you are a Christian, you will weep for the lost. If you are a Christian, you will be troubled by your own sin, and will war against it. Paul made clear at the beginning of the chapter not to follow those who count on the rigors of the Law is the path to be saved. Now he’s exposing the other side of self-made righteousness: don’t follow those who claim indulgence (full bellies, ease, comfort, money) is the reward of the saved.
By All Means
So what’s motivating all this? Let’s let Paul round out his earlier discussion about the importance of Christ.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
Remember back in verse 11 – “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”? Here’s the “by all means” that Paul was talking about: Christ. He will transform our body. He will make all things right. He will give us eternal life. He is our hope and our salvation.
So, what does Paul want us to do? If we ignore the chapter and verse numbers, we’ll find the answer: “Therefore, stand firm.”
There is a casual phrase that carries more meaning than we often realize. Have you “put your faith in God”? I don’t mean have you checked the Christian box on the census form. I’m talking about something much more real.
After a cast is removed, you might be tempted to favor that leg. You avoid putting any stress on it out of fear that it will be painful, or even break again. You don’t truly believe that you are better until you put weight on that leg. You need to walk around, kick a ball, do the things that you’re supposed to be able to do. That’s “putting faith in your leg”. You can say all you want about the doctor’s skill and your belief in the process. But until your actions prove that there is substance to your words, there is good reason to question your faith.
Have you ever put your full weight on God? Do you really trust him? The heart of man is desperately wicked. But God saves men by extending to them his grace. We respond in faith. Not some vague notion or belief. This faith is a sincere and firm trust that God exists and he rewards those who seek him. If you have not repented and placed your trust in Christ, I implore you to do so. He is the only hope you have for finding peace with God. If you are a Christian, I’d encourage you to examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Put to death whatever is earthly in you, because these are why God’s wrath is coming. These encouragements are not just something to do when you receive Christ – they are your new lifestyle.
The author of Hebrews would have us look to the examples of those who trusted God and then obeyed. Seeing their example, lay aside everything that might distract you as you run with endurance the race that has been set before us, always keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith
This message is a serious reminder of our responsibility to obey God. But it is also a fantastic message of assurance. If you are saved, you cannot be snatched from his hand. So, trust God! Run the race. Press on. Be aware of the wolves. Keep your eyes on heaven.
How Great Thou Art
Listen to a few verses of a poem (later turned into a song) written by a Swedish pastor:
O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees. When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing; Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.
These are the words of a man who understands the gravity of what God had done. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” – Romans 5:1-5 ___________________________________
 Philippians 3:12 – 4:1
 Romans 8:38,39; Philippians 1:3-6
 1 Cor 9:24; Hebrews 12:1
 Galatians 2:15-21
 James 2:14-26
 Isaiah 64:6
 Hebrews 11:13
 Acts 5:29; Galatians 1:10
 Romans 5:12
 Matthew 4:48
 Acts 17:11
 Matthew 7:13-14
 Philippians 3:18-19
 Philippians 3:20-21
 Hebrews 11:6
 2 Corinthians 13:5
 Romans 12:2
 Colossians 3:5-10
 Hebrews 12:1-2
 John 10:27-29